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Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
Ebook255 pages4 hours

Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars



About this ebook

Set your creativity free with a writing guide that “wakes you up like a cross between morning coffee and a friendly Zen master” (Jack Kornfield).
  Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones, shares her invaluable insight into writing as a source of creative power, and the daily ins and outs of the writer’s task. Topics include balancing mundane responsibilities with a commitment to writing; knowing when to take risks as a writer and a human being; coming to terms with success, failure, and loss; and learning self-acceptance—both in life and art.  Thought-provoking and practical, Wild Mind provides an abundance of suggestions for keeping the writing life vital and active, and includes more than thirty provocative “try this” exercises as jump-starters to get your pen moving. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Natalie Goldberg, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
Release dateJul 26, 2011
Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
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Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg (b. 1948) is the author of ten books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into fourteen languages. She has also written the beloved Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a memoir about her Zen teacher. For the past thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars on writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in northern New Mexico.

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Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones, has been sitting on my shelf for a while, started but not finished. There were so many references to Zen Buddhism and Ms. Goldberg's Zen teacher that she lost me before even really capturing my interest so I never got very far. This volume started out the same way but since I got it from NetGalley I felt obligated to review it and so kept reading. I'm glad I did because there is a lot of very good advice in it, such as to slow down and notice things we don't usually notice, to write regularly and no matter what, to learn to differentiate between procrastination and productive waiting, to remember that our writing isn't who we are and to live a life outside of it too and Ms. Goldberg's personal motto of "Shut up and write". I really enjoyed her 7 rules of writing practice which are essentially what every other writer tells you to do: keep your hand moving, lose control, be specific, don't think, don't worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar, you're free to write junk and go for the jugular. I liked the chapters on writing the truth and what to do with it if by publishing it you'll hurt your loved ones, on the value of reading your writing aloud and on cutting through all the extraneous noise to the heart of the matter. There were a lot of personal examples which kept me interested because I felt that the author was a real person, not some abstract entity who I knew nothing about (which is actually one of Natalie's recommendations to writers) and there were plenty of exercises to try and I've actually jotted down quite a few to use myself. This book isn't only about writing, a lot of the things covered in it are about life and the challenges a writer, and any other person, faces every day. The chapters on stepping forward with your life, living your life for yourself and not for someone else, and making a positive effort are like that and I liked that they were included. As you see there are a lot of good things about this book but when I turned the last page and thought about it I felt overwhelmed. There didn't seem to be a particular rhyme or reason to the order in which the chapters appeared. Moreover, pretty much every chapter felt like Ms. Goldberg sat down for her writing practice, gave herself a topic and said "Go". Setting one's wild mind free is wonderful for being creative and authentic but if the first word that comes to mind when one thinks about the resulting work is "scatterbrained" I think some editing is in order.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    What an incredible book! This lady really makes you want to pick up a pen and write. She also makes you think you can actually do it.Natalie Goldberg obviously loves writing, and this book is not just about 'how to' - it takes the reader through all the ups and downs of a writing career which creates fascinating insights into philosophy, dedication and sacrifice.The great thing about this book is the fact that Natalie does not 'teach' you how to write but gives you the knowledge to teach yourself via writing practice. Now where's my pen?
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    She's terrific. Her advice will hold up as long as sentences are relevant to human communication. Interestingly, her punchy style was developed long hand - pen on paper - but a generation later is the perfect recipe for bloggers in our ADD age.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    An inspiring work on learning to let go of your ego, hesitation, and anxiety and just write. It may offend readers who want honest, clear advice, and rightly so, it places value on feeling your way through writing, not on technique. Obviously this is only a piece of the puzzle, but it is a vital piece.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Again, I may not be in sync with Natalie's Zen beliefs, but I love most of the TRY THIS exercises in this book. Her ideas will spark your own!

Book preview

Wild Mind - Natalie Goldberg







Wild Mind:

Living the Writer’s Life

Natalie Goldberg

For Virginia Maclovia,

my old Talpa friend

and Carol Soutor,

my traveling partner



1. The Rules of Writing Practice

2. Results of Kindness

Try this

3. Style

4. Structure

Try this

5. A Novel

6. Stalker and Dreamer

7. The Quiet Place

Try this

8. Wild Mind

9. The Gap

Try this

10. No Writing

11. Reading

12. Do It

Try this

Try this

Try this

Try this

13. Accept Ourselves

Try this

Try this

14. Fresh Writing

15. Oral Timed Writings

Try this

16. All Over Again

17. Not Like Therapy

Try this

Try this

18. What I Really Want to Say

19. Emergency Case

20. A Reading

21. Reading Aloud

22. The Cow

Try this

23. Animal

24. Home

25. Whitman Country

Try this

26. Running

Try this

27. Enlightenment

Try this

28. Junior Olympics

Try this

Try this

29. Lake Heron

Try this

30. The Mink

31. Merging

32. Who Gave You Permission?

Try this

33. Time

34. Loneliness

35. Dreams

Try this

36. Step Forward

37. Positive Effort

38. Because

Try this

39. Very and Really

Try this

40. The Dead Year

41. Another Arm Moving

42. Wanting It Bad

Try this

43. Pleasure

Try this

44. Horse Racing

Try this

Try this

45. Success

46. White Castles

47. Crossing Boundaries

48. Paris Notebook

49. Dark and Light

Try this

50. Orchestra

Try this

51. Resident Poet

Try this

52. Detail

Try this

Try this

53. Earn the Right

Try this

54. Procrastination and Waiting

55. Verbs

56. Whales

57. Keep Writing

58. Months Later

59. Failure

60. Lazy

Try this

61. Lost

62. For Everyone

A Biography of Natalie Goldberg



LIFE IS NOT ORDERLY. No matter how we try to make life so, right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg, fall in love, drop a jar of applesauce. In summer, we work hard to make a tidy garden, bordered by pansies with rows or clumps of columbine, petunias, bleeding hearts. Then we find ourselves longing for the forest, where everything has the appearance of disorder; yet, we feel peaceful there.

What writing practice, like Zen practice, does is bring you back to the natural state of mind, the wilderness of your mind where there are no refined rows of gladiolas. The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think—well-mannered, congenial.

When I finished Writing Down the Bones and people in my workshops read it, I thought I would not have to say anything else. I felt embarrassed to say, Steve, you ought to be more specific there. I thought he would retort, We know. You already told us in chapter eight. I thought I would be redundant, but reading a book about writing is different from actually getting down and doing writing. I was naïve. I should have remembered that after I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I was still afraid to die.

A book about writing isn’t enough. Being a writer is a whole way of life, a way of seeing, thinking, being. It’s the passing on of a lineage. Writers hand on what they know. Most of what I learned about Zen was transmitted to me through being in the presence of Katagiri Roshi, the Zen master with whom I studied.

I will give you an example. I had just moved to Minneapolis and I wanted to study Buddhism. Before I moved there, I lived in Boulder and studied with a Tibetan teacher. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance in this Tibetan tradition. It was a big center; we had to wait several months to have an interview with the teacher and we dressed up to see him.

In Minneapolis, I called the Zen center and asked if I could schedule an interview with the Zen master there. The man on the other end of the phone had a heavy Japanese accent. He told me to come right over. I realized he was the Zen master. I dressed up and ran over. Katagiri Roshi came down the stairs in jeans and a green T-shirt that said Marcy School Is Purr-feet. There was a picture of a cat on the T-shirt. His younger son went to Marcy Elementary School. We talked for ten minutes. It was very ordinary. I left, unimpressed.

About a month later, someone called from the Zen newsletter staff, asking me if I would interview Roshi for the fall issue. I said yes. The morning of the interview, I woke up obsessed with the problem of what color material I should buy for curtains. This was 1978 and I had just gotten married. I drove to the Zen center to interview Roshi with that curtain obsession blazing in my mind. I planned to get the interview over with and then rush to the fabric store.

I parked in front of the Zen center and dashed out of the car. I was a few minutes late. I was halfway up the walk when I realized I’d left my notebook on the front car seat. I dashed back to the car, grabbed the notebook and ran to the back entrance of the Zen center. I flung open the door, spun around the corner and came to a dead stop: Roshi was standing in the kitchen by the sink in his black robes, watering a pink orchid. That orchid had been given to him three weeks before. Someone had brought it from Hawaii for a Buddhist wedding I had attended. It was still fully alive.

Roshi, I said in astonishment and pointed at the orchid.

Yes. He turned and smiled. I felt the presence of every cell in his body. When you take care of something, it lives a long time.

That was the beginning of my true relationship with him. I learned a lot from Katagiri Roshi. I learned about my own ignorance, arrogance, stubborness, also about kindness and compassion. I didn’t learn these through criticism or praise. He used neither. He was present with his life and he waited patiently for an eternity for me to become present with my life and to wake up.

Writers are not available for teaching in the way a Zen master is available. We can take a class from a writer but it is not enough. In class, we don’t see how a writer organizes her day or dreams up writing ideas. We sit in class and learn what narrative is but we can’t figure out how to do it. A does not lead to B. We can’t make that kamikaze leap. So writing is always over there in the novels on the shelves or discussed on class blackboards and we are over here in our seats. I know many people who are aching to be writers and have no idea how to begin. There is a great gap like an open wound.

A successful lawyer in Santa Fe decided he wanted to be a writer. He quit his job and the next Monday he began a novel, cold turkey, page one. He’d never written a word before that except for law briefs. He thought he could apply his lawyer’s mind to his creative writing. He couldn’t. Two years later, he was still struggling. I told him, Bruce, you have to see the world differently, move through it differently. You’ve entered a different path. You can’t just leap into the lake of writing in a three-piece suit. You need a different outfit to swim in.

Cecil Dawkins, a fine Southern novelist, said to me in a slow drawl one afternoon after she’d read Writing Down the Bones when it first came out, Why, Naa-da-lee, this book should be very successful. When you are done with it, you know the author better. That’s all a reader really wants—she nodded her head—to know the author better. Even if it’s a novel, they want to know the author.

Human isolation is terrible. We want to connect and figure out what it means to write. How do you live? What do you think? we ask the author. We all look for hints, stories, examples.

It is my hope that in sharing what I do, I have helped my readers along the writing path.


The Rules of Writing Practice

FOR FIFTEEN YEARS NOW, at the beginning of every writing workshop, I have repeated the rules for writing practice. So, I will repeat them again here. And I want to say why I repeat them: Because they are the bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own mind. Trusting your own mind is essential for writing. Words come out of the mind.

And I believe in these rules. Perhaps I’m a little fanatical about them.

A friend, teasing me, said, You act as if they are the rules to live by, as though they apply to everything.

I smiled. Okay, let’s try it. Do they apply to sex?

I stuck up my thumb for rule number one. Keep your hand moving. I nodded yes.

Index finger, rule number two. Be specific. I let out a yelp of glee. It was working.

Finger number three. Lose control. It was clear that sex and writing were the same thing.

Then, number four. Don’t think, I said. Yes, for sex, too, I nodded.

I proved my point. My friend and I laughed.

Go ahead, try these rules for tennis, hang gliding, driving a car, making a grilled cheese sandwich, disciplining a dog or a snake. Okay. They might not always work. They work for writing. Try them.

1. Keep your hand moving. When you sit down to write, whether it’s for ten minutes or an hour, once you begin, don’t stop. If an atom bomb drops at your feet eight minutes after you have begun and you were going to write for ten minutes, don’t budge. You’ll go out writing.

What is the purpose of this? Most of the time when we write, we mix up the editor and creator. Imagine your writing hand as the creator and the other hand as the editor. Now bring your two hands together and lock your fingers. This is what happens when we write. The writing hand wants to write about what she did Saturday night: I drank whiskey straight all night and stared at a man’s back across the bar. He was wearing a red T-shirt. I imagined him to have the face of Harry Belafonte. At three A.M., he finally turned my way and I spit into the ashtray when I saw him. He had the face of a wet mongrel who had lost his teeth. The writing hand is three words into writing this first sentence—I drank whiskey...—when the other hand clenches her fingers tighter and the writing hand can’t budge. The editor says to the creator, Now, that’s not nice, the whiskey and stuff. Don’t let people know that. I have a better idea: ‘Last night, I had a nice cup of warmed milk and then went to bed at nine o’clock.’ Write that. Go ahead. I’ll loosen my grip so you can. If you keep your creator hand moving, the editor can’t catch up with it and lock it. It gets to write out what it wants. Keep your hand moving strengthens the creator and gives little space for the editor to jump in.

Keeping your hand moving is the main structure for writing practice.

2. Lose control. Say what you want to say. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Allen Ginsberg was getting a master’s degree from Columbia University. Back then, they were doing rhymed verse. He had a lot of practice in formal meter, and so forth. One night, he went home and said to himself that he was going to write whatever he wanted and forget about formalities. The result was Howl. We shouldn’t forget how much practice in writing he had prior to this, but it is remarkable how I can tell students, Okay, say what you want, go for it, and their writing takes a substantial turn toward authenticity.

3. Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette. Be careful of those pop-psychology labels. Get below the label and be specific to the person.

But don’t chastise yourself as you are writing, I’m an idiot; Natalie said to be specific and like a fool I wrote ‘tree.’ Just gently note that you wrote tree, drop to a deeper level, and next to tree write sycamore. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t give room for the hard grip of the editor.

4. Don’t think. We usually live in the realm of second or third thoughts, thoughts on thoughts, rather than in the realm of first thoughts, the real way we flash on something. Stay with the first flash. Writing practice will help you contact first thoughts. Just practice and forget everything else.

Now here are some rules that don’t necessarily apply to sex, though you can try to apply them to sex if you like.

5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.

6. You are free to write the worst junk in America. You can be more specific, if you like: the worst junk in Santa Fe; New York; Kalamazoo, Michigan; your city block; your pasture; your neighborhood restaurant; your family. Or you can get more cosmic: free to write the worst junk in the universe, galaxy, world, hemisphere, Sahara Desert.

7. Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you’re avoiding the truth. Hemingway said, Write hard and clear about what hurts. Don’t avoid it. It has all the energy. Don’t worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.

I am often asked, Well, isn’t there a time when we need to stop our hand moving? You know, to figure out what we want to say?

It’s better to figure out what you want to say in the actual act of writing. For a long time, I was very strict with myself about writing practice. I kept that hand moving no matter what. I wanted to learn to cut through to first thoughts. Sure, you can stop for a few moments, but it is a tricky business. It’s good to stop if you want, look up and get a better picture of what you’re writing about, but often I don’t stay there. If I give myself a little gap, I’m off for an hour daydreaming. You have to learn your own rhythm, but make sure you do some focused, disciplined keeping the hand moving to learn about cutting through resistance.

If you learn writing practice well, it is a good foundation for all other writing.

When I was young, I played tennis. My arm wasn’t very strong, and I was impatient. I was so eager to play, I held the racquet up higher on the grip than I was supposed to in order to compensate. Unfortunately, I got used to using the racquet this way. I was a fine tennis player, but no matter how much I played, there was just so far I could improve, because I never mastered one of the important basics: the proper grip on the racquet.

I use this as an example for writing practice. Grow comfortable with it in its basic form before you begin to veer off into your own manner and style. Trust it. It is as basic as drinking water.

Sometimes an interviewer asks me, So writing practice is old hat? Have you developed something new?

And I say, "It would be like a Zen master teaching you meditation one year and the next year saying, ‘Forget compassion. Standing on our head

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